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Barefoot running - fad or something we should all do?

Barefoot running - fad or something we should all do?

Most exercise 'fads' come and go repeatedly, so I was interested in a recent session on Barefoot Running at the recent national American College of Sports Medicine meeting.  Is barefoot running a fad or is there something more to it?

Your first reaction may be the same as mine:  "No way I'll do that unless I'm on a beach.  I don't want to cut up my feet."  As I've found, most of the experts in the area are not really advocating running barefoot; they are advocating running with the same gait and biomechanics as those that run barefooted.  Let's dig into that a bit.

First, biomechanists - those exercise scientists that are concerned with the physics of sports and movement - have noted quite clearly that humans that have grown up running barefoot, run with what is called a 'fore-foot strike pattern'.  In other words, when they run, they primarily land toward the ball of their foot.  This fore-foot strike pattern is different than the 'rear-foot strike pattern' that most people that wear shoes (i.e. 'shod' runners) use when they run.  The advantage of using the fore-foot strike pattern is that it allows the foot (in particular the arch) to act as a shock absorber.  This significantly reduces the force that is transmitted to your joints, especially in your legs (e.g. ankles, knees, hips, etc).  In fact, one scientist, Dr. Irene Davis (Director of the Spaulding National Running Center at Harvard Medical School) has some intriguing data suggesting that using a barefoot running style almost eliminates the alternating impacts to your joints with running.  So, the evidence at this time seems to indicate that using a barefoot (fore-foot) strike pattern may cause fewer injuries than the normal rear-foot style most of us are used to (for a detailed analysis of the available data and Dr. Davis' presentation - including some of the graphs - check out Dr. Ross Tucker's Science of Sport blog.  While you are there, check out his blog on "Are Your Shoes causing Your Injuries?").

So, you are probably asking yourself, "if this 'barefoot style' is so great, how come we haven't been doing it all along?".  That's a good question and the answer may be as simple as "our shoes don't let us use a barefoot style".  If you look at most shoes (especially modern running shoes), they have a built-up heel that makes it extremely difficult to use a fore-foot strike pattern. But anthropologists such as Dr. Dan Lieberman (Harvard) and Dr. Dennis Bramble (Utah) point out that one of our earliest evolutionary advantages was that we could run long distances.  And you can bet that cavemen didn't have waffle-soled running shoes with elevated and cushioned heels.  One of the challenges that Dan Lieberman put forward was for anyone to run with a rear-foot strike pattern while not wearing shoes (think about that for a minute and how painful it would be).  But when we run without shoes, we all naturally use shorter strides and move to a fore-foot strike pattern.  Drs. Lieberman and Davis both point out that we naturally run with a fore-foot strike pattern, but alter that pattern when we put on shoes.  Shoes = more force transmitted to our joints; barefoot = much less force transmitted to our legs.  (If you want to see more of the data behind this assertion, click here.) 

While this is all very interesting and almost enough to make me try barefoot running, I'm still not wild about the pounding my feet would take.  Not to worry - several shoe companies (e.g. Nike, Vibram, Merrill) now make what is called 'minimal footwear' that protect the soles of your feet but do not have the elevated heel, arch supports and cushioning, allowing you to run using a fore-foot strike pattern.  Some of the models out there are the Nike Free, Vibram Five Fingers (those are a bit strange but are quite popular with college students), and Merrill Glove series (plus, I'm sure that there are many others out there that I haven't listed).

And if you're tempted to try a barefoot running style - and my knees and legs are begging me to give it a shot - don't just jump in and run your normal mileage with the barefoot style.  Most of the experts recommend a 4-6 week transition program to help strengthen your feet and legs.  Here's a link to one such transition program that was developed by Dr. Lieberman if you decide to go for it.

So, in closing, is barefoot running for you?  The evidence at this point is fairly strong suggesting that a barefoot running style can reduce impact forces during running and as a result, will reduce injuries.  The biggest hurdle seems to be in wearing appropriate 'minimal' footwear and in transitioning to the new style without causing injury.  I know some runners who love the new style and others, who in spite of their best efforts, can't make it work without injury.  So, in the end, barefoot running may be one of those things that you just have to try to see if it is right for you.

Until next week, stay active and healthy!

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